Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Stephen Chaplin says:

    Is “Bruce” Jenner still Bruce? First, as an aside, a friend of mine competed against Bruce Jenner in high school. Bruce could show up to any high school track meet and win any event —sprint, distance, jumping, pole vault —you name it, usually winning easily. But I disagree that we should refer to Caitlin Jenner as “Bruce.” Your name is your choice, your business. A good example is Hillary Rodham Clinton. That was the name Hillary wanted to go by, rather than “Hillary Clinton.” We must defer to that. But I will still refer to Caitlin as “he” because, while you can choose your name, you can’t choose your sex.

  2. Thomas Fleming says:

    When you say, “Your name is your choice, your business,” do you have any evidence for so counter-intuitive an opinion? Names, in most of the traditions that converged to shape American society, were given by families who emphasized, 1) your identity as a member of the family, 2) some aspect of your religious background, 3) some value they hoped your did or would display. My last name, for example, was the name of an Irish and Scottish family with roots in Flanders. My first and middle names were traditional among my Fleming ancestors for as far back as one can trace. My own children were given names of close relatives and, in one case, a distinguished friend. My father, who disliked his first name (Albert) had been named after the theologian, and the Thomas may well have been connected with the Aquinas. Roman names in the late republic and early Empire typically folllowed a basic pattern. The first name was selected from a list of about 30 permissible names. Let us say Gaius or Marcus or Lucius. The second name was that of the broad family or clan, like Cornelius, Licinius, Julius. The third name identified a subset of the general clan,. as Scipio, Crassus, Caesar. When you met Gaius Julius Caesar, you knew his clan, his more immediate family, and might even guess from the praenomen some closer connection. Christians used to bestow names based on a major saint on or near whose day you were born on, and baptismal names might reflect devotion to a particular saint. Ancient Greeks tended to name eldest sons after the paternal grandfather, so there is endless alternation. But since they were fond of patronymic formulas, three generations were often incorporated in a name like Cimon son of Miltiades. Jews to this day, I am told, name children after a dead relative whose memory is kept alive in the child. Societies, which prescribe certain rules and norms, may also choose to bestow a nickname. We are told, though it is sometimes disputed, that Plato was named Aristocles son of Ariston, but a wrestling coach or someone dubbed him Platon, referring to his broad shoulders. If you want to be called what you want to be called, then the end of the COVID is a misfortune, since real names–not the names we like to give ourselves–are imposed as part of the social structure. Of course there have been strange people, in recent generations, who named their children after diamond mines or jewelry stores or,. more recently, rivers or states, but, since such people have opted out of what used to be known as civilization, the less said of them–or of those who make up nonsense as silly-sounding as an Asian-made automobile–the better.

  3. Raymond Olson says:

    Tom–I find your discussion of names and naming in our Western traditions downright heartwarming. I am exceptional in my family in bearing a Christian name that, at first blush, comes from outside the family. I am named after my mother’s cousin Muriel’s husband, Ray Olsen (note the “e” rather than second “o”), who was a beloved judge of juvenile court in Isanti county–beloved by me as the one “uncle” whose every visit to us (my grandmother was long the de facto matriarch of her family, and Muriel was her niece) I eagerly anticipated. I am proud to carry his memory.

  4. Thomas Fleming says:

    Our colleague Rex was named for an uncle who died in WW II, and he showed me a picture of his uncle coming out of a Wisconsin outhouse. Our older son was named after Douglas Young, poet, scholar, Scottish nationalist and director of my dissertation, and his brother was named after my great uncle who saved two people from a terrorist, who had taken them hostage, and was honored by Wyatt Earp. Our older daughter was named after a maternal great-grandmother and a close friend from schooldays of both parents, and our younger daughter (Mary Harriet) was named after my own mother (as well as my father’s sister and the Blessed Virgin) and my wife’s maternal aunt–whom I always called, irreverently, “Mad Aunt Hattie.” I did not even go into societies, such as some American Indian tribes, in which names were acquired at something like their confirmation ceremonies–ordeals and rituals they endured before being accepted into the tribe. At least in popular versions of some SW American indians, they fast and torture themselves until they receive a vision of who they are. Although I do not entirely approve, 19th century Americans were fond of significant names like George Washington, or States Rights. I have one additional name, taken on being received into the Catholic Church, and that is (sort of) George, the martial saint whom I chose as an antidote to my excessively pacific nature. What I failed to mention at the time is the fact that George was patron saint of my mother’s family. Ray, one difference between the old pre-postmodern world and our own is that in the old days, bad or good, lives were marked by significant rituals and identified by significant names and expressions. Today, parents make up anything that sounds good to them or is popular. Some wise guy on the internet named “Josh”–a number one name in the 1980’s–has challenged all the Joshes of the world to a fight to determine who is the real Josh, and they held some sort of match with inflated bludgeons. My wife and I used to imagine what would happen if you went to a playground and called out, “Justin, Jeremy Josh, come here!” You’d be run over by the stampede of children whose parents wanted, as one friend who named her son Justin told me, “I just wanted him to be his own person.” I had asked if he was named after the OK emperor, the evil Justin II, or the martyr and apologist.

  5. James D. says:

    I used to notice a preponderance in trendy and nonsense names among girls, while male names such as Michael, John, James, Robert, etc. seemed to remain consistently the most popular. However, in the past decade, this has all been thrown out the window. With boys names recently I have noticed an incredible rise in “names” such as Aidan, Kaden, Braden, Jayden, Zayden, Hayden, etc. (as well as almost any rhyming variant,) spelled any way you like. Often, there is a “Y” thrown in for extra flair.

  6. Stephen Chaplin says:

    Dr. Fleming: What of the nom de guerre? the nom de plume? the stage name? the nickname? I, too, am a big fan of naming offspring in honor of a relative (or in honor of some admirable person). I, my three siblings, my dad, and our three child are all so named. But what if you later discover that the uncle after whom you were named was, in fact, execrable and monstrous? Might you not wish to go by your middle name or change your name? I believe most states have change-of-name statutes, giving an individual control over his/her legal name. But I will leave you with this most compelling of examples: Prince Rogers Nelson (the artist formerly known as Prince). Where would the world be without “Love Symbol #2”?

  7. Thomas Fleming says:

    Nicknames are informalities that rarely are allowed to become public in a decent society. Carter was the first President who wanted his nickname on the ballot, and that says as much as we need to know. Noms de plume may be necessary under many circumstances, especially in the old days when certain people were expected to stay out of the public eye, but stage names are an indication–of we needed any–that actors are not respectable human beings. There are exceptions of course, but few of them are in Hollywood. Noms de guerre may be necessary for espionage agents and other people engaged in a struggle to defend their country, but spies and spooks in peacetime are men and women who make their living by lying and deceiving not just enemies but perfectly ordinary people. If your uncle was named Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer, I understand, but if your uncle was just an embezzler, it is more important to remember that he was your uncle. Besides, what is the likelihood of someone being given a distinctive name that would bring shame to the bearer? Even Mussolini’s kids and grandchildren kept or resumed the name. There is an old saying among lawyers that hard cases make bad law, and it is equally true that exceptional cases do not make good precedents for general principles. The general principle is that names locate us in a familial, social, religious, network, and people who change their names without overwhelming reason are people to avoid. Did anyone note how many of the Democratic presidential aspirants went by illegitimate names?